Hidden Nature : A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton)
Over the past few years I’ve become addicted to nature memoirs – I have Amy Liptrott to thanks for this, with her amazing 2016 book ‘The Outrun’, which led me to reading the entire Wainwright Prize shortlist, and ultimately into a very hot tent in the grounds of Blenheim Palace that summer to see the prize giving. I find the announcement of the Wainwright long and short lists the most exciting bookish days and 2018 was no exception. It turns out I had three of the longlist on my bookshelf already.
One of them was this, Hidden Nature. This is not Alys Fowler’s first book, but it is very different to her other writing; that writing has always been shot through with her personality and love of the outdoors – whether it’s in her Guardian column, writing about how to garden thriftily (my go-to gardening book) or keeping bees, but Hidden Nature is so much more exposing. It must have taken huge chunks of bravery not only to change her life, but to write this compelling account of the end of her marriage and beginning of a new relationship after coming out as a gay woman. I thought this book was filled with emotion – extreme pain, and extreme joy – she has met the woman she loves, but she must leave her chronically ill husband. She was not going to test the waters with an affair, she would be responsible for her actions – this memoir puts across so well that you don’ just fall neatly out of and into love, it’s never that tidy.
There are moments of calm as Alys floats along the canals of Birmingham in her packable canoe – alone or with her friends – and explains the way mosses reproduce, or watches apples and coconuts bob past in the water, then the violent emotions which surely must engulf anyone when their life changes from one thing to another spring up – I certainly recognised the freeing effect she describes of having a huge howl (though I didn’t do mine on a canal underneath the M5).
The journey along Birmingham’s canals is tied up with Alys’s journey into a new life, everything evolving and changing as the canals and their wildlife do. It is a pilgrimage of sorts – a time away from the remortgaging and questions, time to be quiet (or howl). maybe to begin to know herself again as well as she knows the natural world around her – he descriptions of the wildlife of the canal are absorbing.
Her canoe trips remind us that really nothing remains the same for ever – the great industrialists who built the canals for commerce would not have imagined their quite rapid fall into decreptitude and return to nature, haunts of buddleia, tourist boats and kingfishers, and a woman in a boat on the water, paddling along to her new life.
The Wainwright Shortlist was announced on 5th July (I am very far behind this year) and as usual I want to read them all, well – I have five to go!:
The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell (Tinder Press)
Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton)
Outskirts by John Grindrod (Sceptre)
The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye (Canongate)
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton)
The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson (William Collins, HarperCollins)
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph)